04 June 2024

Leicester Secular Hall,
built in 1881, is part of
the diversity of belief
in a multi-faith city

Leicester Secular Hall at Leicester Secular Hall at 73-75 Humberstone Gate was designed by William Larner Sugden in 1881 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

Leicester is known for its multi-faith environment and as Britain’s most ethnically diverse city. It had a rich tapestry of religious support and facilities and the city’s inclusivity is reflected in its places of worship, religious shops, community spaces, and prayer facilities.

Leicester’s diverse communities worship in the many churches, mosques, temples, mandirs, gurdwaras and synagogues throughout the city. But non-religious belief also plays a role in the life of Leicester, and the city has one of the only buildings in Britain that is dedicated to secularism.

Leicester Secular Society claims it is the world’s oldest secular society, and seeks ‘an inclusive and plural society free from religious privilege, prejudice and discrimination.’ It owes its survival to the long tradition of radical thought in Leicester and to the building of the Secular Hall in 1881.

Apart from Conway Hall in London, Leicester Secular Hall in Leicester city centre is the only building in Britain that is entirely devoted to secularism. Leicester Secular Hall at 73-75 Humberstone Gate was built in 1881 and today is a Grade II listed building.

Secularism was a very controversial idea in Victorian times, and the hall has a long tradition of hosting radical speakers from atheist, humanist and radical traditions.

Secularism in Leicester dates back to the 1780s, when artisans in the town corresponded with Thomas Paine. The first formal secular organisation was Branch 26 of Robert Owen’s Association of All Classes of All Nations. Branch 26 was founded in 1838 and meet in the Commercial Rooms near the market.

The first Leicester Secular Society was formed in 1852, and was re-established in 1867. The early Secular Society was led for many years by Josiah Gimson (1818-1883), an engineer and councillor, and William Henry Holyoak (1818-1907), a tailor.

Josiah Gimson, who was born into a Leicester Quaker family, was an active supporter of Robert Owen and was President of the local Owenite branch in Leicester. He became a secularist leader in Leicester in the 1850s, influenced by the ideas of George Jacob Holyoake, who coined the term ‘secularism’. Two of Gimson’s lectures to the society had the titles ‘Jesus Christ: a Witness for Secularism and against doctrinal Christianity’, and ‘The Ethical Teachings of Christ testify to the all-sufficiency of Secular Conduct’.

William Henry Holyoak’s family had attended the Great Meeting or Unitarian chapel in Leicester.

The terracotta busts by the sculptor Ambrose Lewis Vago represent Socrates, Voltaire, Thomas Paine, Robert Owen and Jesus (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

By the late 1860s, the activities of Leicester Secular Society mainly involved discussion classes and it met regularly when it could find venues willing to host it. Frederick James Gould (1855-1938), the society secretary, claimed Josiah Gimson proposed building the hall came after George Holyoake was prevented from using a public room for a lecture in 1873. However, other sources suggest the inspiration came from articles Holyoake published in 1871, when he proposed a series of secular halls across Britain.

The Leicester Secular Hall Co Ltd was formed to build the hall, with Josiah Gimson as the main shareholder. A site was bought and Gimson engaged William Larner Sugden (1850-1901) of Leek, Staffordshire, as the architect, engaged the sculptor Ambrose Louis Vago, and was responsible for the controversial inclusion of a bust of Jesus on the façade.

The architect William Larner Sugden was a secularist who had worked for his father, also an architect, in Leek. There he had encountered the ideas of William Morris, who was studying textile dyeing in Leek in the 1870s. Sugden’s designs are described in the Historic England listing as ‘Free Flemish Renaissance’. Non-Gothic styles were used for civic buildings in Leicester at this time to distinguish them from the buildings of the Church of England.

The five terracotta busts by the sculptor Ambrose Lewis Vago (1839-1896) on the façade represent Socrates, Voltaire, Thomas Paine, Robert Owen and Jesus. In the original plans, bronze belts round the pillars were to be inscribed with quotations from the five figures. They were chosen as ‘world-menders and social reformers’, but the choices caused uproar in 1881. Further up the façade there are representations of Libertas, Justitia, Veritas (Freedom, Truth, Justice).

Ambrose Lewis Vago was born in Holborn, London, the son of Ambrogio Vago, an Italian immigrant figure maker. He is listed in 1861 as a phrenological bust maker at 111 Gray’s Inn Lane, in 1871 as a moulder at 114 Gray’s Inn Lane, and in 1881 as a modeller and phrenological bust maker. His terracotta bust of Dr Samuel Johnson belongs to the Athenaeum Club in London.

The inclusion of Jesus among Vago’s terracotta busts caused uproar in Victorian Leicester (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The hall was opened on Sunday 6 March 1881, with speeches from Josiah Gimson, Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant.

Since then, Leicester Secular Society helped promote new ideas, inviting the advanced thinkers of the day to give lectures in the hall. William Morris gave his famous lecture, ‘Art and Socialism’, in the hall in 1884, and this speech marked the beginning of the Socialist movement in Leicester. Later visitors and speakers included George Bernard Shaw, HM Hyndman, John Burns and Prince Kropotkin.

After Gimson died in 1883, his son Sidney Gimson became the mainstay of the society until shortly before his death in 1938. He was assisted by FJ Gould as secretary from 1899 to 1908. Another son, Ernest Gimson, became a designer in the Arts and Crafts movement.

The society was once well financed, employing a full-time librarian and manager and running a swimming club, gymnasium, Sunday School, evening classes and a women’s group. To accommodate an increased working class membership, the hall opened a bar and was used by shoe workers to host their annual Saint Crispin’s Day celebrations. The membership began to actively debate socialism versus individualism.

The Leicester branch of the Socialist League held its meetings in the hall, and several founders were members of Leicester Secular Society.

The society has continued to provide a haven for the pursuit of knowledge, a shelter for free thought and radical politics, and a forum for literary, scientific and philosophical debate. Leicester Secular Hall is also home to one of the oldest libraries in Leicester, with five bookcases filled with philosophical and political books, pamphlets and journals.

The society went into a decline after World War II, and average weekly attendances dropped from a high of 50 to a low of 20. However, the recent resurgence of religion as a political issue seems to have reinvigorated the membership. The ground floor was partially refurbished and accessible toilets were installed in 2013. There are ambitious plans to fully refurbish the building to meet modern standards.

Leicester Secular Hall is one of only two buildings in Britain devoted entirely to secularism (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

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